This is a complicated matter, and I don’t mean to trivialize others’ thoughts or speak condescendingly. But when discussing the nature of prophets with other Mormons, I’m too often led to say (or just think), “You realize that the prophets don’t believe in your kind of prophet, right?” Some mistake our prophets and the sacred office they fill for unearthly, quasi-divine, almost omniscient, formerly human-but-now-heavenly emissaries – persons who spend so much time going back and forth between the throne of God and the Church Office building as to have built up some serious frequent flyer miles.
Answering the question of just what a prophet in the Mormon sense is won’t get a definitive answer here (or anywhere). But what we take a prophet to be is critical to most of the contentious maelstrom swirling around both the bloggernacle and our various ward dinner tables today. It cuts to the heart of one’s experience of Mormonism. In offering my thoughts on Mormon prophets, I’m also offering my experience. But given the sheer weight and importance of the question, this and the subsequent posts are also meant to stand as a kind of argument in favor of these notions.
Ironically, the “infallibly informed prophet” is regularly endorsed by certain groups of Mormons who leave the Church and certain groups who take themselves to be the guardians of orthodoxy. This notion is prominent in the debates currently raging. For example, certain of those who feel faithfully content with the scandalous inequality faced by women in the Church and certain of those who leave our religious family over this issue anchor their decisions in a belief in infallible, wholly informed, perfectly prescient prophets. For them, prophets wake up each morning to a fresh stack of memos and talking points compiled by angels while they slept. The faithful are scandalized by those calling for equality, since the empirical fact of inequality is itself evidence that God intends that inequality, that there must be something that actual promotes of our temporal and eternal welfare in this inequality, since if this were not the case, then the prophets would long ago have received and acted on a celestial memo to change things. Those who choose to leave are sometimes scandalized by anyone who could call our current leadership prophets, seers, and revelators, since it’s obvious that were they such, they would long ago have received a celestial memo and acted to end inequality.
One anecdote for this shared confusion is to simply ponder the striking fact that our prophets themselves can’t believe in infallibly informed prophets – they live inside their own skin – and yet consider themselves to nonetheless be prophets. Infallabilism is a luxury that only those far removed from prophets can entertain. Being removed from leaders is perhaps naturally dehumanizing – hence US presidents are seen as demons or angels (but not humans) depending on which partisan one talks to, and the analogy applies to presidents of the Church. Our current prophets, however, in addition to being intimately associated with one another, were all alive and associated with their predecessors – the ones who espoused as doctrine various things that today’s leadership eschews as incorrect.
I think what’s needed is a restoration of the Restoration notion of prophets. That is, we already have an adequate answer to this dilemma, it’s just that many of us have apostatized from it. I don’t want to dwell extensively on the point, but we’ve canonized declarations of God concerning the fallibility, foolishness, wickedness, unbelief and “darkened minds in times past” of our Church authorities. This of course doesn’t mean that we’re stuck with failed prophets, any more than Moses’s being a murderer or Jonah’s false prophecies make them failed prophets.
Our prophets are normal humans, with normal social prejudices and widely varying grasps on scripture, history, and doctrine. This in no way detracts from their legitimate standing in the office or their actually holding the keys and authority of that office – a divinely appointed role as oracle when and how God deems fit to give the entire Church further light and knowledge. (Note: in the scriptures and our own history such light and knowledge comes for various reasons, including: God wants to give it, the prophets seek after it, or the people seek after it. Likewise, it’s important to note that as individuals not only are we not limited to the light and knowledge which God grants to the whole Church, but neither ought we to be content with it.)
Jeremiah had all kinds of prejudices, was flatly wrong about the revelatory significance of dreams, and appears to have misunderstood important doctrines concerning the nature of temple rituals and our having Divine Parents. This doesn’t change the fact that he was called by God (from the womb) and given prophetic authority to delivery God’s message to the people at that time – a message significant enough to be canonized for the rest of history.
And if ever there was an egregiously, explicitly racist prophet, it’s Enos. That he prayed for God to save those he denounces as bloodthirsty barbarians doesn’t much change this fact. Nevertheless, his racism certainly doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have had the theophany he describes when the prophetic office fell to him, nor does that racism much detract from the profound inspiration that millions of us have received from his scriptural account. Enos was in every sense I’m familiar with a genuine prophet. And a racist one.
I find it incredibly helpful to look comparatively at the Lehite dispensation in the Book of Mormon. Here we get a thousand years of history with an unbroken line of prophetic transmission reduced to a small handful of major addresses, visions, letters, first-personal reflections, and the like. Look at the first four hundred years of that history. Things start off with a revelatory bang and very quickly dwindle to a low murmur that is little more than an endorsement of the foundations and purpose of the dispensation, together with a faithful insistence on literal prophetic transmissions.
How do we account for this? Do we deny that there was in fact a literal transmission of prophetic authority and divine purpose (note that multiple prophets later in the Book of Mormon insist on this transmission)? Do we decide that, contrary to the small glimpse we get, the prophets between Enos and Benjamin were really just as revelatory and dispensationally important as those who came before and after, but for some reason were just skipped over? I don’t find these sorts of solutions either true to the text or very satisfying. I’m much more comfortable believing that Book of Mormon prophets were both the humans they describe themselves to be and variable with regard to the overall profundity of their prophetic tenure. Nevertheless they all played the key role of transmitter and fulfiller of dispensational purpose that they claim, and the religious history of the Book of Mormon (taken at face value) manifests this fact.
I don’t find the beginning of our dispensation any less spiritually dramatic than that of the Book of Mormon (perhaps the opposite). I genuinely believe that this dispensation’s spiritual climax(es) are yet to come and will likewise be no less dramatic than those recorded on plates of gold. I also don’t find it terribly hard to be edified and fortified in my faith listening twice a year to what usually amounts to mere testimonial endorsements of the foundations and purpose of our own dispensation, mere faithful insistences concerning literal prophetic transmission, together with a host of more and less cultural interpolations. This is particularly true since I frequently find my ears graced to hear words worthy of canonization.
Again, consider the first five hundred years – fully half! – of Lehite history. We get roughly two hundred modern pages. Were I given a similar commission as Mormon and allowed a corresponding one hundred pages to write the theologically juiciest bits of our own history and doctrine, the challenge would certainly be how to choose “even an hundredth part” of our dispensational riches.
In other words, if we simply take the Book of Mormon at face value (whether or not we believe in it) and use it as a guide against which to measure the prophets of our own day, and particularly of the latter end of our Latter-days, then our prophets come off remarkably well.
If one tries to judge Joseph or Brigham or Thomas – or any prophet - by a criterion that makes prophets out to be infallibly informed and morally perfect, then of course they fail. On the other hand, if we determine that prophets are merely men who happen to lead a merely human institution, one is of course likely to be dismissive and perhaps embarrassed or disconcerted by faithful members’ respect for prophets – and this is true of any dispensation, not just our own.
If, however, we use our own Mormon standard (paradigmatically, the one we find in all of our Latter-day scriptures) and not the world’s mythical standard (I’m tempted to write caricature), then there’s nothing in our recent prophets’ prejudices, actions, and testimonies that demands us to recognize them as something other than what they claim: oracles of God with the legitimate keys to preside over our people and its main institution in these Latter-days.
Importantly, the implication is that we neither elide individual or collective faults, nor deny the reality of divine engagement in the unfolding of our particular covenant.
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 There are three things that are worth noting if I’m right (or three things I want to point out): First, Mormonism has something substantive to contribute (at least by way of support). Second, there are exciting implications with regard to how living prophets influence religious experience. Third, we get ourselves – collectively and individually – into a real bind when we adopt other notions of what a prophet is. I’m largely going to leave these points up to your imagination (and perhaps future posts) and instead try and say something about how we ought to understand prophets.
 It’s also prominent in many circles outside of Mormonism – amongst both believers and atheists. This is part of why I think what Mormonism offers is so significant.
 I talked about this idea here in my review of the recent Pratt biography.
 The D&C is rife with such passages. Sections 3, 9, 10, 84 and 93 are all prime examples.
 I’m using Jeremiah not because he’s the most prominent example of a scriptural prophet with faults, but because his writings are among my favorite.
 Enos 1:20 is almost comic in its description.
 We can likewise think of the Jaredites here, though their dispensation and religious practice – and particularly the role of prophets in that dispensation – seem rather significantly different than either the Lehites or the Latter-days.
 The unbrokenness of this line is certainly debatable, but I don’t think anything terribly important hangs on this point.
 To be completely clear, most of the emphasis is on the direct transmission of the records, but also on the transmission of the “sacred things.” Prophets throughout the BofM are concerned with their authority, their genealogical credentials, and the line by which things were passed down. My reading is that two primary dispensational purposes among the Lehites is the keeping of God’s covenant as a branch of Israel in the new promised land, and the creation and transmission of their records.
 Let me emphasize and explain this point. I can’t remember a General Conference where I paid my spiritual preparation dues and wasn’t rewarded with hearing the tongue of angels in at least one of the talks. I think it is the same for most of us. This doesn’t change the fact that any given General Conference is, by and large, a testimony meeting with lots of cultural interpolations. Reading the Journal of Discourses together with recent Conference Reports makes this abundantly clear. This makes General Conference a paradigmatic example of what I’m trying to get across. Those with infallibly-informed-prophet syndrome tend to either deify or ridicule General Conference. If one takes on board the notion of prophets that I’m urging here, then on a microscopic level the typical General Conference isn’t much to rave about. From a dispensational perspective, however, both the overall practice and the greatest hits list of General Conference certainly is.
 I personally don’t think this is because our own leaders are comparatively moral giants – I suspect a lot of it has to do with our context. That is, my own thoughts and prejudices tell me that our racist, chauvinistic, heterosexist, speciesist, violent society has nevertheless opened up a remarkable space for tolerance, charity, and rational discourse that is itself comparatively remarkable and largely missing from the societies out of which our ancient scriptures spring.